LONDON — And you thought he was a heartthrob when he swung that scythe, shirtless amid the gleaming fields of 18th-century Cornwall in the BBC drama “Poldark.” Wait until you get a load of Aidan Turner tenderly cradling a cat’s mangled corpse in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” which opened on Wednesday at the Noël Coward Theater in a river of stage blood.
Mr. Turner applies his bounteous romantic spirit of “Poldark” to Michael Grandage’s buoyant revival of Martin McDonagh’s 2001 comedy of atrocities. Portraying a dewy-eyed — and devotedly homicidal — Irish republican terrorist named Padraic, Mr. Turner is the shining embodiment of glamorous, dangerous stupidity.
Watch the boyish zeal with which Padraic, wearing a bloodstained T-shirt as if it were a cavalry tunic, threatens to slice the nipple off a local drug dealer he has hung upside down from the ceiling. Thrill to the moment when he and Mairead (Charlie Murphy), the boyish girl back home who’s all grown up now, realize they were made for each other as they find themselves looking down the barrels of their respective firearms.
Ah, those sentimental fools of Inishmore. When it’s a special occasion, but they’re lost for words, they can always say it with guns.
Mr. Turner, who came to fame as a handsome, self-sacrificing dwarf in the “Hobbit” trilogy of films, isn’t the only graduate of the Tolkien school of matinee idols who’s swapping onscreen derring-do for onstage sociopathy. Only blocks away from “Lieutenant,” Orlando Bloom — once the elfin prince Legolas in “The Lord of the Rings” — is slaying ’em in a revival of Tracy Letts’s “Killer Joe” at Trafalgar Studios.
Mr. Bloom’s character, the contract-killing police detective of the title, is literally slaying those who dare to displease him in this 1993 noir portrait of duplicity and carnage in a trailer park. Mr. Bloom the actor can’t help exuding a scrupulous decency that doesn’t quite tally with a reptilian psycho. But he provides a necessary centering presence in a production that, under the direction of Simon Evans, leans toward hysteria when a deadpan matter-of-factness is required.
It’s been fascinating to see both Mr. Bloom and Mr. Turner endowing animalistic annihilators with leading-man charisma, as audiences splash happily in these productions’ blood baths as if they were toddlers in kiddie pools. And different times call for different forms of catharsis. The revivals of “The Lieutenant Inishmore” and “Killer Joe” coincide with a renaissance and reinvention in horror movies, including films like “Get Out,” “A Quiet Place,” and “Hereditary.” Unlike their cinematic equivalents, which exaggerate and explode contemporary anxieties in an increasingly anomic world, these plays ask us to consider our acceptance of gruesome shock and awe as entertainment.
Each is, in its own way, a deeply moral work that explores the absurdity of environments in which taking lives is no big deal. The cash-hungry Texans of “Killer Joe” have been anesthetized by a diet of cultural junk food. The inhabitants of “Inishmore,” in contrast, are in heady thrall to a Great Cause, the liberation of Northern Ireland — from the English and the Protestants (and the cat-haters). They give quivering lip service to these sacred sentiments, especially the part about cats.
But, really, people like Padraic — who, having been deemed too mad for even the Irish Republican Army, creates his own splinter of a splinter group — are folks for whom wholesale destruction has become a conditioned reflex. An unrepairable disconnect looms between cause and effect, and the instinct is to kill first, think (if at all) later.
Mr. Grandage, whose self-named production company did a marvelous revival of Mr. McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” four years ago, has created a subversively sentimental frame for this frightening mind-set. Christopher Oram has designed a picturesque, if slovenly, storybook cottage of a set. And Adam Cork’s music is full of the blarney of Celtic lilt. Not for nothing is the nationalist ballad “The Patriot Game” intoned throughout, as the sense of an anarchic game divorced from rules and context grows ever stronger.
The cast — which also memorably includes Denis Conway as Padraic’s dad and Chris Walley as the young idiot next door — effortlessly conveys the illogical logic and perverse mundanity of the dialogue. Such talk is a specialty of Mr. McDonagh, whether in theater (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “Hangmen”) or film (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’).
Even in the face of imminent, wall-spattering death or toenail-pulling torture, the speech of Inishmoreans exudes a homogenizing prosiness. The dismemberment of human bodies, the assassination of close relatives, the proper length of a young man’s hair and the selection of cat food are given dumbfounding, equal weight as conversational topics.
It’s the casting of Mr. Turner, though, that lifts this production into its own special universe of razor-edged inanity. His Padraic is as smolderingly virile as his Poldark. With flashing eyes that tear up at the drop of a cat and a muscular frame made for monument-worthy poses, this Padraic is a strutting contradiction of attraction and repulsion, daring us to question our conventional notions of the heroic.
It’s been 17 years since “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” — which won the Laurence Olivier Award for best comedy and received a clutch of Tony nominations for its 2005 Broadway incarnation — first jolted theatergoers into a state of appalled hilarity. Its sardonic evocation of the pain and loss from the Troubles in Ireland may (fortunately) be less immediately shocking than it was.
But the play’s paradoxical power to elicit the feelings of being both sucker punched and tickled remains undiminished, perhaps especially for American theatergoers. At a time when senseless shootings have become almost numbingly commonplace, and nationalism is dividing a nation, Mr. McDonagh’s Inishmore is looking a lot more like the United States than it ever has before.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Through July 28 at the Noël Coward Theater, London; noelcowardtheatre.co.uk. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
Through Aug. 19 at Trafalgar Studios, London; atgtickets.com. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.